Administrative History
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After World War II, control of federal lands in the desert fell to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a newly-created agency in the Department of the Interior whose difficult mission of being almost everything to almost everyone was later codified as "multiple use." The BLM was created in 1946 when the Grazing Service and the General Land Office were combined. This action placed much of southern California and the east Mojave under the ostensible control of the new agency, but in reality the BLM's presence was light, both because of the nature of the management responsibilities of the new agency and a lack of staff. The BLM's greatest presence in the area was felt by miners and ranchers, both of whose activities the agency monitored; the former under the auspices of the 1872 General Mining Law, and the latter under the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act. The Bureau was dominated by ranchers and miners, and provided little oversight of their activities. The massive popularity of recreational use of the California desert forced the BLM to expand its management portfolio. After World War II, recreation rose to economic importance in the area. Millions of American soldiers got to know the area during the war because of Patton's Desert Training Center and California Arizona Maneuver Area, and the growth of population in the Los Angeles area after the conflict created additional pressure to explore the desert. Motorcycle technology, fueled by the disposable income of thrill-seeking baby boomers, advanced rapidly after the war, and the desert became the location of choice for increasing numbers of off-road riders to recreate. At the same time, the American public began to develop an environmental ethic that suggested that consumptive uses of the desert were perhaps not the best ones.

BLM stepped up its management of recreation when Russ Penny, appointed California state BLM director in 1966, instructed his office in Riverside to document the impacts of a motorcycle race that was to be held in the desert on Thanksgiving weekend, 1967. Known as "Barstow to Vegas" or simply "B to V," this motorcycle race quickly became one of the major spectacles in American off-road racing. The most unusual feature was the mass start of the race, where hundreds and, in later years, thousands of dirt bikes roared to life at once and sped off toward a distant target in a cloud of choking dust. The Barstow to Vegas race caused considerable damage to desert resources, and Penny's documentation of the event provided the BLM with ammunition to get a $25,000 grant to study the desert. The resulting 1968 report suggested the development of a comprehensive plan and the formulation of future studies of the area, as well as designation of off-road courses and protected recreation areas. As an agency, BLM was only beginning to become comfortable with recreation management in the late 1960s, and perceived off-road recreation as a use for which the desert was suitable. The BLM formed the Off-Road Vehicle Advisory Council, or ORVAC, to advise the agency on recreation and desert issues. The council developed a report which recommended classifying lands as "open," "restricted use," and "non-use," and suggested that BLM needed law enforcement powers to stop lawbreakers. [69]

BLM's call for expanded regulation was answered in 1972 because a radical change in attitudes toward government intervention in environmental issues prompted the politically-sensitive president to act. A massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969 and other events focused the nation's attention on environmental regulation, and legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 received strong bipartisan support. At a time when a pro-environment stance was a good political move for any politician, Republican or Democrat, President Richard M. Nixon issued Executive Order 11644 in February 1972, which required all federal agencies with land under their control to designate areas as acceptable or unacceptable for off-road vehicle use, so as to protect the natural environment. The BLM set up an Interim Critical Management Program, under the leadership of Wes Chambers and Neil Pfulb, to find and close particularly sensitive areas, and to allow open play in others. After receiving 18,000 comments on the draft, a final version was approved in November 1973, which provided guidance for the next seven years. [70]

The Barstow to Vegas motorcycle race grew considerably after its inception in 1967, and BLM employees and other desert users were increasingly concerned that the race was substantially damaging the desert. After the 1973 race, BLM conducted an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) that showed that significant damage had occurred and would continue to occur with future races. The report was published less than a month before the 1974 race, so a federal judge ruled that the event could continue as planned. The BLM monitored the race very closely, and the data that they collected plus the EIS was enough justification to deny a permit for the event in 1975 and thereafter.

FLPMA and the Desert Plan

The Barstow to Vegas motorcycle race and subsequent concern over OHV damage focused the attention of environmentalists and lawmakers on the California desert. Conservation measures in the California desert were hamstrung because BLM had no enforcement powers and no legislative mandate to protect the environment, unlike its specifically mandated grazing and mining responsibilities. In 1970, Bob Jennings, a member of Penny's desert planning staff who cared for the desert and saw first hand the resource damage that BLM was unable to prevent, left the Bureau to work as an aide for U.S. Representative Bob Mathias, a California Republican whose district included some areas that would eventually be added to Death Valley National Park. Jennings emphasized the desert conservation issue to his boss, and working together with BLM, wrote a bill to give the BLM enforcement and planning powers in the desert. Mathias introduced the bill in Congress that year, and soon other members of the California delegation, including Senator Alan Cranston, were also pushing similar bills. The desert bills were reintroduced in 1971, and again in 1973. Senator Cranston got a hearing for his bill in 1974, where the subcommittee suggested that it be integrated into an omnibus BLM bill, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), making its way through the Senate. FLPMA did not pass that year, but Cranston's desert-specific portions remained in subsequent reintroductions, and were enacted into law when FLPMA was passed in October 1976. This act, one of the most important pieces of land management legislation ever passed, provided the BLM with an organic act and placed it on equal footing with the NPS and the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. On paper, the act prioritized recreation and preservation as of equal importance as BLM's traditional mining and grazing functions, even though this equality was not always reflected in the field. [71]

FLPMA had several important impacts in the eastern Mojave. It required the BLM to "manage, use, develop, and protect" its lands, a contradictory mission that suggested a tenuous balance of interests but prevented BLM from adequately satisfying any user group completely. It enabled the BLM to designate Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, of which six were eventually created in the eastern Mojave, and required that the agency check its holdings for lands suitable for potential inclusion in the wilderness system. FLPMA section 601 specifically created the California Desert Conservation Area, consisting of some twenty-five million acres of private and public land including all BLM lands in southern California, and required that a management plan be developed by 1980. This document became known as the "Desert Plan." [72]

Developing the Desert Plan took several years and a tremendous amount of public input. The scope of the project alone, developing a management plan for tens of millions of acres, was daunting. Little information existed about many of the resources in question, so the BLM created a tremendous program of natural and cultural research on desert resources. Many large public meetings were held by the agency to ensure public input; fifteen hearings were held between 1977 and 1979, before publication of the first draft of the plan. BLM received more than 40,000 individual comments at that time. Some of the loudest voices at these meetings came from organized groups that wanted to utilize the desert for OHVs and mining, but others urged conservation. In a series of opinion polls, the public substantially supported increased conservation in the desert. FLPMA required BLM to inventory its lands and set aside those that seemed to have wilderness values as Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). The Wilderness Act of 1964 already initiated WSA evaluation for lands controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, but the BLM had been left out of the original act. FLPMA required the WSA evaluation process to be completed by 1991, but since the status of WSAs would affect their management, this task also needed to be completed before the final Desert Plan was issued. [73]

The main mechanism for planning in the Desert Plan was land classifications, a technique commonly used by federal agencies by the time of the development of the management plan for the deserts of Southern California. For federal land in the California Desert Conservation Area, one of four classifications could be used. Class C, "Controlled Use," was reserved for Wilderness Study Areas and prohibited most vehicle use and all new mineral claims. "Limited Use" or Class L lands were designated as such to "protect sensitive, natural, scenic, ecological, and cultural resources." On such lands, mining operations were required to have a Plan of Operations with reclamation, power and phone lines were to be routed underground where possible, and land would not be turned over to private ownership. Class M, "Moderate Use," permitted more kinds of operation, including airstrips, nuclear and fossil fuel powerplants, off-road racing, and small mines without reclamation. "Intensive Use" or Class I lands included large mining operations and OHV play areas. The Desert Plan provided an "Unclassified" category for lands usually located inside towns or surrounded by private lands. The Desert Plan also allowed BLM to establish special reservations to acknowledge special features or uses. Examples of these special categories included the "Area of Critical Environmental Concern," the "Research Natural Area," and the "National Natural Landmark." [74]

The Desert Plan included an interesting amendment mechanism that gives solid proof to the adage about no good deed going unpunished. "Eminent planner" Harvey Perloff was one of many experts hired by BLM to help the agency put together the Desert Plan. Perloff suggested that an amendment process be included, so that instead of a static, unwieldy document, the Desert Plan could mutate and grow as conditions themselves changed. BLM officials thought this an excellent idea, and the amendment mechanism became an integral part of the Desert Plan. Ultimately, many of the Desert Plan amendments passed by BLM in the Reagan/Watt years served to weaken environmental protections. Environmentalists didn't trust the BLM to maintain adequate levels of protection in the face of administrative hostility, especially after Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary James Watt decimated the conservation aspects of the bureau, and a more "permanent" legislative (rather than administrative) protection of desert lands became the goal of the conservation lobby. [75]

The East Mojave National Scenic Area and the Genesis of the CDPA

During the creation of the Desert Plan, members of various conservation organizations urged BLM to provide special protection to lands in the eastern Mojave. One group, Citizens for Mojave National Park, was formed by Joyce and Peter Burk as a bicentennial project on July 4, 1976. In fits and starts, the organization pursued its solitary goal of a Mojave National Park. The Citizens for Mojave National Park alone were never numerous nor wealthy enough to make a national impact, but Peter Burk and other members were also actively involved in the Sierra Club and other organizations with enough resources to achieve major change. As a result, the Citizens for Mojave National Park helped to focus some debate on the desirability of increased protection for the eastern Mojave, even though most politicians and conservation leaders believed any park effort should wait until after the Desert Plan was complete. As early as 1976, Burk circulated a rough sketch of a Mojave National Park that closely mirrored the later East Mojave National Scenic Area and the Mojave National Preserve, although the resemblance probably had as much to do with the realities of development in the eastern Mojave as it did with prophetic vision. [76]

Burk's idea of a Mojave National Park may have been deemed premature, but the idea was clearly on the minds of the agency's planners at the time. In 1978 and 1979, BLM Desert Plan staff studied their holdings for potential park lands in the desert, and concluded that "the cultural and natural resource values of the East Mojave Study Area are so diverse and outstanding that the area readily qualifies for national park or national monument status." BLM management sidestepped the insinuation of the report that the agency should relinquish some of its most beautiful California lands to its rival Interior agency. [77] The Desert Plan, as finalized, was significantly weaker than environmentalists originally hoped, but the election of Ronald Reagan convinced conservationists that the plan was certainly better than nothing. [78] One of the highlights of the Desert Plan was the recommendation that Interior create a "national scenic area" in the east Mojave, the first designation of its kind. The East Mojave National Scenic Area (EMNSA) was formed by an order of Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus in December 1980, just before Reagan took office, and reauthorized by James Watt in early 1981. When Guy R. Martin, Andrus' Assistant Secretary of Interior for Land and Water Resources, signed the proposal, he noted the amorphous nature of the new designation, and added the important proviso that the "concept should be fully and accurately described." [79]

The decision to create a "national scenic area" instead of a national park in the eastern Mojave desert in 1980 was due to a series of factors. The eastern Mojave landscape was clearly among the most park-like of the BLM lands in the California desert, and widespread calls for increased protection could not be ignored. Without a doubt, BLM management desired to retain jurisdiction over the prime lands in the eastern Mojave, and not give up any control to other agencies. Frank Wheat said that BLM "tossed a bone to the conservation community" by forming the EMNSA. Judy Anderson, one of the principal leaders in the later push for increased desert protection, later described the designation as a deal between the BLM and pro-park forces, brokered by the National Parks Conservation Association, which was deeply concerned about putting additional strain on NPS resources. These fears were based on the belief that the California desert was already adequately represented in the national park system by Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments; when combined with concerns that scenic intrusions such as power lines and abandoned mines made the area less than desirable, the EMNSA designation seemed like an appropriate compromise. [80]

Working mostly with traditional users, BLM management created a statement of management philosophy in August 1981 to guide decision-making until a management plan could be developed and implemented. The statement reaffirmed BLM's commitment to the multiple use of the area, and emphasized that designation of the EMNSA did not add additional levels of regulation; the region would be managed according to the public land laws and the Desert Plan. To ensure "adequate" protection, nearly all of the land within the EMNSA would be classified for limited use under Desert Plan guidelines. Administrative priority would be placed on EMNSA issues within the larger BLM management area. Additionally, the BLM would review all development plans within its jurisdiction for "scenic quality management."

Several concepts would be echoed by later NPS management. For example, the BLM emphasized that "recreationists" should have a "sense of discovery" when exploring the area. This phrase still describes management philosophy in the Preserve. The philosophy statement also noted that the designation and its consequent management applied only to public lands, not private or state lands located inside the boundaries of the EMNSA. The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 harkened to this concept, though not directly, when it specifically excluded all private land (other than the former railroad lands then owned by the Catellus Corporation) from the Mojave National Preserve until acquisition by the park.

Other provisions of the philosophy statement emphasized BLM's multiple use mission. Of six management goals listed in the document, the first was to make the EMNSA a "demonstration showcase for multiple-use management." Another goal expressed the desire to limit development of paved roads, but simultaneously increase the value of the resource by adding "improvements" such as additional water. Recreational use, such as sightseeing and camping, were recognized as important activities. Even with the increased protection of the "scenic area" designation, the eastern Mojave was managed from a perspective that use of the land was the highest value, unlike NPS policies that emphasize resource protection and functioning ecosystems above all else. [81]

four-wheel drive vehicles
Illustration 9 - A caravan of four-wheel drive vehicles traveling the Mojave Road pauses for lunch. (Photo by Eric Nystrom, 2001.)

One recreational resource enhancement was provided by a group of volunteers who worked to reopen the "Old Government Road" to modern traffic. In 1962, Dennis Casebier, a physicist by trade and a historian by inclination, first arrived in the eastern Mojave, "fascinated from the beginning" by the old trail and determined to find out more about it. While working in Washington DC, Casebier haunted the National Archives, copying tremendous amounts of historic material about the Mojave. In the early 1970s, Casebier wrote several short histories of aspects of the military presence in the desert, including its role in the development of the Mojave Road. Armed with an engaging slide show, Casebier gave lectures on the history of the trail. BLM officials, including Desert Plan Director Neil Pfulb and Assistant Director Wes Chambers, were very interested in the Mojave Road and its potential for recreational use by hikers, equestrians, and perhaps motorized vehicles. Not yet convinced of the road's suitability for four wheel drive use, Casebier hiked its 130-mile length in eight days during October 1975. Assisted by BLM, Casebier sought publicity in the late 1970s and early 1980s to open the road to greater recreational use. The trace itself was disappearing in some places, and needed traffic to retain a road-like condition. In March 1980, Casebier was asked to lead a caravan of four-wheel drive enthusiasts over the Mojave Road. Using CB radio, he lectured along the way, describing the history of the landscape. In Casebier's words, "it was just like magic!," and the experience demonstrated that cautious drivers would pose little threat to the resource. Over the next several years, Casebier led more outings and coordinated development of the trail, with BLM's eager consent. In May 1981, Casebier and his associates officially created the Friends of the Mojave Road, to work with BLM as volunteers to promote environmentally friendly recreation along the old wagon road with an emphasis on education. The group agreed that signs would be out of place along the road and resolved to create rock cairns and a mileage-based guidebook as an alternative. As finalized, the trail produced by volunteers ran directly over the wagon road in most places but occasionally utilized detours along parallel trails when the original road was blocked or unusable. The California Association of Four-Wheel Drive Clubs agreed to take responsibility for the small amount of maintenance the road would need, repairing cairns as necessary and conducting semiregular trash patrols. The Guide to the Mojave Road was published in October 1983, after advance orders of over 600 copies ensured it would be a worthwhile venture. [82]

The first edition of 1,700 copies sold out, and by the time an updated edition of the guide was issued in 1986, Casebier estimated that over 2,000 people had traveled the trail. Once the success of the experiment was clear, the Friends of the Mojave Road, with the approval of BLM managers, developed a more ambitious project, a 660-mile closed loop utilizing existing roads through lands in the eastern Mojave, in part to relieve traffic pressures on the Mojave Road. Initial planning work for the East Mojave Heritage Trail was under way by 1985. As a result of the effort and cost associated with devel [83]oping the trail and publishing the guidebooks, the Heritage Trail was opened in successive segments. The first of four guidebooks was published in 1987, and the final installment appeared in 1990. Under BLM, four-wheel drive recreation was a use of the East Mojave National Scenic Area that was encouraged. [84]

Despite rhetoric in favor of protection espoused by the EMNSA management statement, it seemed to conservationists that resource protection was a secondary concern. In 1982, BLM promulgated the first cycle of major amendments of the Desert Plan. Several affected the East Mojave National Scenic Area, including proposals to reinstate the Barstow to Vegas motorcycle race, to remove some 300,000 acres from WSA status, to reduce levels of protection on class L lands, and to delete some 140,000 acres in the northern portion of the EMNSA from the unit entirely at the request of Molycorp. The Molycorp land deletion was reduced to 47,520 acres after conservationists protested the move, but many of the other amendments perceived by conservationists as detrimental to the EMNSA were passed. This incident highlighted the fact that the malleability of the Desert Plan would not necessarily work only to increase environmental values. Disillusioned conservationists doubted that the Desert Plan could be counted on to prevent ecological damage, since any protections could be taken away with administrative amendments, so environmentalists began to push in earnest for a legislative solution to resource protection. [85]

BLM actions in the EMNSA gave environmentalists reasons to worry. In 1984, MCI Communications proposed to put a 350-foot tall microwave tower on private land atop Marl Mountain. BLM claimed that they had no voice in the matter, because it was private land, but conservation groups pushed the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to require an Environmental Impact Report for the project. Stalled by wrangling over environmental issues, MCI decided to locate its tower outside the Scenic Area. The following year, BLM supported selling EMNSA land south of I-15 to facilitate development in Baker. Both developments eventually ended without action, but environmentalists remained concerned that BLM had no interest in maintaining the integrity of EMNSA lands. Later events reinforced this observation, including BLM's permission for LA Cellular and Pacific Bell to build towers in the Scenic Area without public review, and the bureau's decision to reinstate the Barstow to Vegas motorcycle ride. Mining in the area expanded in the 1980s, driven by a steady rise in the price of gold and the development of cyanide heap-leach methods capable of working low-level ore at a profit. The Colosseum Mine, an open pit gold operation located in the Clark Mountain Area of Critical Environmental Concern, began modern production in 1985. Environmentalists charged that permission of massive open pit mines in the Scenic Area itself was wrong, but to do so for a mine in an ACEC, argued conservationists, showed beyond doubt that the BLM's designation was meaningless. [86]

BLM's apparent disregard for environmental protection gradually eroded their support among environmentalists, and activists pushed for legislative reform. Southern California Sierra Club activists took the lead on pushing for legislative protections in the desert. Judy Anderson, a high school mathematics teacher in greater Los Angeles, gradually became the de facto leader and was assisted by an extensive roster of conservationists. Anderson began producing maps of proposed wilderness areas and expanded park units in 1981; these maps, with modifications, were the basis of the maps included with the final CDPA. Pro-CDPA forces agreed that patience was crucial, and hypothesized that a Desert Protection Act had the best chance of passage if a broad coalition of pro-environmental groups were aligned behind a single proposal. At first, the national leadership of conservation organizations doubted the wisdom of including a Mojave National Park in the proposal, but effective advocacy by Peter Burk and others ensured that it would be included in the final plan. In late 1984 and early 1985, a number of conservation groups led by the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the California Wilderness Coalition, formed the California Desert Protection League as an umbrella organization, and elected Judy Anderson as chair. They kept in close contact with Kathy Files (later known as Kathy Lacey), Senator Alan Cranston's environmental aide, and met with the lawmaker himself in January 1985. The league prepared maps of all of the proposed additions and wilderness areas, along with descriptions and photographs of the areas. With a solid foundation of material for support, Senator Cranston introduced S.2061, the California Desert Protection Act, at a press conference on February 7, 1986. Cranston emphasized that the bill would be "no-cost" because all of the areas were already under federal control. [87]

The first California Desert Protection Act was the direct antecedent of the final bill that passed in 1994. It included a new Mojave National Park, without hunting, in the area designated as the East Mojave National Scenic Area, national park status for Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments, and creation of an extensive amount of BLM-managed wilderness in the desert. The introduction of CDPA legislation also prompted desert users to take sides for or against the bill. The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial reflective of the attitudes of its urban constituency, endorsed the proposal. The California Desert Coalition was formed in 1986 as the biggest anti-CDPA group, comprised of mining, ranching, OHV, hunting, and property rights activists. Prompted by the anti-expansion attitudes of the Reagan administration, the Department of the Interior and the BLM also opposed Cranston's bill. Roy Rogers, an advocate for traditional uses of the desert which reified the individualistic American anti-regulation myth, starred in an anti-CDPA video, "Desert Lockout," produced by conservative California state senator H.L. Richardson and distributed to major news outlets. The California Desert Protection League countered with a video of their own, "Desert Under Siege," a pro-park production starring two pro-conservation scientists. [88]

Despite their opposing positions, it was clear that both sides cared about the desert. In late 1985 and early 1986, the Union Pacific decided to cease operations at Kelso, and raze the 1924 vintage railroad depot because of mounting maintenance costs. People from both sides of the CDPA debate joined to save the Kelso Depot from destruction. Peter Burk, who was widely known as being stridently anti-BLM, gave an indication of the bipartisan nature of the effort when he labeled BLM leaders Ev Hayes and Gerry Hillier, as well as Congressman Jerry Lewis "the heroes who saved Kelso Depot from destruction." With the assistance of the Kelso Depot Fund, the BLM took control of the building in 1992. [89]

For six years, the East Mojave National Scenic Area was administered by BLM under the statement of philosophy and the Desert Plan. During this time, several specific planning efforts targeted Areas of Environmental Concern, grazing, wildlife habitat, and burro management. The introduction of the Cranston bill in 1986 showed BLM that conservationists were genuinely unhappy with the bureau's management of the area. BLM attempted to remake its efforts in a newly sensitive light, to prove its capabilities to conservationists, and to avoid the transfer of BLM lands to other agencies. In January 1987, the Park Service reported on the suitability of the lands in the east Mojave for inclusion in the park system. The report itself was essentially noncommittal, but NPS Western Regional Director Howard Chapman's cover letter enthusiastically supported a park in the east Mojave. Despite a limited reception in Washington, this report increased the pressure on BLM to release a management plan for EMNSA that reflected the desire of much of the public for additional resource protection. BLM prepared a draft management plan for the EMNSA in 1987, and submitted it for public review. The plan outlined steps that would increase protection in EMNSA, including decreasing use of ATVs, closure of some roads and washes, withdrawal of some 60,000 acres from mineral use, and reclassification of 120,000 acres from class M to class L status. The agency received 327 written comments and more than 100 oral suggestions at ten public meetings. A final management plan was released to the public in mid-May 1988, but was characterized as a "significant retreat" from the draft plan, with environmental protections weakened in many cases. The plan was designed to last for ten years, until 1997, and to provide levels of support services sufficient for 200,000 visitors by that time. The EMNSA plans placed extensive emphasis on scenic quality management but only referred to historic preservation and continuation of existing uses in a parenthetical manner. [90]

The EMNSA plan was perceived as "too little, too late" by many conservationists. It seemed to be a political response to the threat posed to the agency by the California Desert Protection Act, rather than a genuine expression of a change of heart toward conservation issues. More importantly, the multiple-use outlook of the agency itself suggested that BLM would never protect the land to a level satisfactory to the conservationists. As the California Desert Protection League ramped up efforts to extend permanent legislative protection over desert lands, conservationists became less interested in a BLM-based solution.

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Last Updated: 05-Apr-2004